Archive for March 16, 2014

ZaReason UltraLap 440 Review Part 2: This time, it’s personal

March 16, 2014 3 comments

[BLOGGER’S NOTE: Yeah, it’s unconventional to do a review in two parts this way, but the timing of my receiving the ZaReason UltraLap 440 coincided by chance with the week leading up to SCALE 12X, perhaps the busiest time of my year as the publicity chair for this event. This is the second of two parts, where I look at the day-to-day use of the UltraLap 440, in contrast to the work trials and tribulations that I covered in Part 1 of this review ].

As I mentioned in the last item, ZaReason allowed me the use of their new UltraLap 440 for a test drive. I wasn’t able to use the laptop under normal day-to-day use because of SCALE 12X, but after the event, things settled down. My life became my own again, and the UltraLap 440 also settled into the day-to-day routine of writing, Web surfing, Python projects for the class I co-teach, and the occasional video.

First things first: The UltraLap 440 given to me is a model with 8GB of RAM ($59 extra, with 4GB being the default) and with the 120GB Crucial SSD drive (the default being 500GB 5,400 RPM drive). Other than these modifications, the laptop has a dual-core i5 Intel processor running at 1.6 to 2.6GHz, Intel video card, Intel WiFi, and Bluetooth included (I didn’t use the Bluetooth). The specs and options for this machine are here — and the base cost of the UltraLap 440 is $799, and the version tested goes for $957 (extra RAM, Crucial SSD drive raising the price). We’ll get back to the financial side of things in a bit.

Day-to-day use: As previously mentioned, when I’m not handling publicity for the best FOSS show in the U.S. every year, my hardware use habits revolve around writing documentation, teaching a beginning Python class for homeschooled middle- and high-schoolers in Santa Cruz, surfing the Web and the trappings that entails, and watching a video from time to time. As an aside, I am a huge Aaron Sorkin fan, and I can often be found breaking down episodes of “The Newsroom” or “The West Wing” from time to time, as well as watching other films via DVD.

I threw a lot at the laptop working on SCALE 12X. As I mentioned, it performed flawlessly. Because the rigors of my daily digital life are far less than the those of working on the expo, the laptop handled everything I threw at it — lesson plans, various writing projects, some photo fixing via GIMP and even an installation of Citrix Receiver for my work at the newspaper were all handled easily and quickly (8GB is a blessing to someone for whom 4GB is huge, and the difference is remarkable).

Long live the battery: Of special note on this laptop is the battery life. The way I tested it — other than forgetting I had not plugged in the laptop while working at SCALE and letting it wind down to a dangerously low level (OK, 15 percent to me reaches that threshold) — was to do the video test: Watch as many episodes of Season 1 of “The Newsroom” to see how far I could go. The results? With an open browser with five tabs (Gmail, WordPress, Associated Press, Google News and ZaReason), I was able to watch Episodes 8, 9 and 10 while running the battery down to 9 percent by the end of the third hour. Because I don’t have newer hardware to compare it to, this clearly outdistances any ThinkPad I’ve ever owned, and clearly outperforms my current main laptop.

Distros on the UltraLap 440: When I booted the UltraLap 440, it came with Ubuntu 13.10, which was used only long enough to install Korora 20 KDE, a Fedora derivative which I like to use with hardware with a lot of horsepower. As an aside, one of the advantages that ZaReason has over other Linux hardware vendors (looking at you, Ubuntu-specific System 76) is that you have a choice of distro when you order — they’ll install Ubuntu (and the other *buntus, like Kubuntu), Linux Mint, OpenSUSE, Debian, Fedora, or even your choice of distro that you ask them to install.

Nevertheless, Korora 20 KDE ran flawlessly on the UltraLap 440. Another aside — if you like Fedora and want all the bells and whistles that you might want for simple Web surfing, then Korora is worth a try. Updates and installs went without problems and most of the things I added were handled without breaking a sweat.

Another personal distro of choice that I use on other hardware is CrunchBang, a Debian derivative with the Openbox window manager. When you have 8GB of RAM at your disposal and your distro is running a window manager as opposed to carrying the weight of a desktop environment, well you can probably fill in the blank. In short, CrunchBang flew as if a rocket engine was placed on a go-kart.

The UltraLap 440 fires on all cylinders, but not all is unicorns and daisies with this laptop . . .

The one glaring issue: Before I mention this, I have to say first that I am a very fast typist. My fingers, though large, can zip across the keyboard with the speed of the fastest of the qwerty artists. Chalk this up to typing since the early ’70s. In any case, when I tested the ZaReason Alto 3880 a couple of years ago, I had some misgivings about the keyboard; misgivings that were unfounded since the Alto still performs well here at home.

However, the keyboard on the UltraLap 440 takes getting used to when using it for the first time, and the learning curve — that is, allowing your fingers that may be used to another keyboard to get accustomed to this one — took longer to negotiate than I would have anticipated. However, once I got the hang of it, it was fairly smooth sailing from then on.

Postscript: Despite the keyboard issue, there are a multiplicity of upsides to buying this laptop, despite the fact that some might consider that price a little on the high side. To be honest, I cannot afford a laptop close to $1,000, but the UltraLap 440 is well worth the price — for those who can afford a laptop in this price range, the UltraLap 440 would make an outstanding choice.

One more thing: Much has been made of the fact that Linux-specific hardware is more expensive than their Windows-based counterparts. Without bring the UEFI issue up, one of the advantages of buying Linux-based hardware is that it shows supports for FOSS.

Perhaps the hardest thing about reviewing this hardware is that I have to return it. Thank you, ZaReason, for providing the world with outstanding FOSS-based hardware.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy, Larry the CrunchBang Guy, Fosstafarian, Larry the Korora Guy, and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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